Ronin (1998)

Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Written by: David Mamet (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) from a screenplay by John David Zeik
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce
Runtime: 121 minutes
Release Date: September 25, 1998
Home Video Release:  Arrow Films USA, August 15, 2017, Blu-ray Special Edition

At its core, RONIN is a well-executed heist film.  An international team of former special operatives come together to fulfill a contract to procure an undisclosed item of great importance.  Their contact Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) provides them with their mission – secure a heavily guarded briefcase from a convoy transporting it.  What initiates as a well-planned routine theft soon shifts to unanticipated chaos as the team encounters a series of double-crosses and shifting alliances.  The Russian mob shows interest, complicating matters.  In the end, former CIA strategist Sam (Robert De Niro) and the low-key French specialist Vincent (Jean Reno) team together to complete the assignment and tie up loose ends.

This genre of film usually follows a standard plot progression and requires numerous complications to build suspense and hold the audience’s attention.  RONIN succeeds admirably in this endeavor due the Frankenheimer’s deft direction, well-staged action sequences, Mamet’s dialog and the excellent ensemble cast.

The title of this film is important.  A rōnin was a samurai without a lord or master during the feudal period of Japan.  The word itself literally means “drifter” or “wanderer”.  A samurai became masterless from the death or fall of his master as has been the plot of countless Japanese period films that are both cinema classics (the works of director Akira Kurosawa featuring Toshiro Mifune) and fabled exploitation gems (the colorfully bloody Lone Wolf and Cub series).  Most importantly in these tales, the rōnin has not lost his code of honor and frequently takes on small jobs for those in need, usually for a humble meal, a few coins, or because it is the ethical choice.  One of the interesting aspects of RONIN comes from watching the former operatives either walk this path in the implied traditional sense or choose betrayal. This theme becomes a more explicit discussion point half way through the film.

Frankenheimer was nearing the age of 70 when he took on RONIN.  Elements from his previous works like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), GRAND PRIX (1966), FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975), BACK SUNDAY (1977), and 52 PICK-UP (1985) can be found throughout RONIN.  His mastery over staging and filming practical (non-CGI) car chases should place the two main vehicular sequences in RONIN right at the top of any action fans’ “best of” list.  There’s a real sense of speed, space and scale to these chases that has become increasingly lacking in movies since the advent of the shaky cam/quick edit techniques that began to creep into action films in the 1990s.  It’s also refreshing to get these chases in the cramped streets of Paris and Nice instead of the open highways of North America.  Frankenheimer also gives enough time for the large cast to succeed in distinguishing themselves, allowing each character to have a reasonable presence.

The ensemble cast is pretty amazing.  De Niro anchors the film in what is arguably his last solid original performance before sliding into a long series of De Niro caricature roles as found in ANALYZE THIS (1999), THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (2000), MEET THE PARENTS (2000), ANALYZE THAT (2002), MEET THE FOCKERS (2004), LITTLE FOCKERS (2007) and so on.  Jean Reno delivers in his laconic style that was so engaging to viewers in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994).  An early role for McElhone, RONIN is one of her best performances, adeptly juggling the various conflicting interests at work in her character’s story arc.  Rounding out the crew is Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård, and Jonathan Pryce – all delivering unique and distinctive characters within a relatively crowded film.

About the Arrow Films USA Release:

Arrow Films USA has released RONIN on Blu-ray in an excellent 4K restoration that delivers a sharp image, terrific color and solid blacks to the many dark scenes.  To date, this is the best visual presentation this reviewer has seen of this underrated movie.  The audio is immersive and helps draw the home video enthusiast into the film.  Arrow’s generous extras round out the package and can be accessed through an easy to navigate menu system.

Highlights of the extras include the audio commentary from director Frankenheimer, who goes in-depth on the making of the film with emphasis on the practical nature of his car chase scenes.  There’s also an interview from the mid-1990s with director Quentin Tarantino who talks about Robert De Niro’s career.  Tarantino’s passion for De Niro’s performances is very clear, making this a fun watch but also underscoring Tarantino’s comments as delivered more by a fan than critic – something that many film lovers, especially those who enjoy the exploitation genre, should appreciate.  Here’s the full list of Arrow’s features:

  • Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release, supervised & approved by cinematographer Robert Fraisse
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p)
  • Original English 5.1 audio (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer
  • Brand new video interview with director of photography Robert Fraisse
  • Paul Joyce documentary on Robert De Niro
  • Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane, an archival behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Through the Lens, an archival interview with Robert Fraisse
  • The Driving of Ronin, an archival featurette on the film’s legendary car stunts
  • Natascha McElhone: An Actor’s Process, an archival interview with the actress
  • Composing the Ronin Score, an archival interview with composer Elia Cmiral
  • In the Ronin Cutting Room, an archival interview with editor Tony Gibbs
  • Venice Film Festival interviews with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone
  • Alternate ending
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet illustrated by Chris Malbon, featuring new writing on the film by critic Travis Crawford

On a final note, this review is based on a screener copy of the RONIN Blu-ray supplied by Arrow Films USA.  As a result, I cannot provide any feedback regarding the final packaging, including the collector’s booklet for the first pressing.

Final Thoughts:
RONIN runs a little long at 121 minutes, but the trade-off would be to cut dialog and potentially risk the establishment of each unique performance.  The balance works for this film, rewarding the viewer for just a small amount of patience.  The action sequences incorporating automotive violence, bullet exchange, and aggressive hand-to-hand fighting provide a sense of reality, making them all the more harrowing when they arrive on film.  RONIN is a solid heist and action film worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.

Contributed by Drew Beckmann